[Image: Democritus. One of the scientists whose indoorsy vocation is seriously interfering with the chief god’s love-life.]
This is Part Three of a novelette published in four parts by Bewildering Stories. Parts One and Two were published in Issue 911; parts Three and Four in Issue 912. I am republishing it here over the course of this week. “Zeus and His Things” is a humorous speculative story inspired by (a) my decades-long love of Greek mythology, and (b) the question: What if things don’t really behave systematically, as we expect them to?
For a month Things pretended people didn’t exist. A memorable month. The plunge in the population of Hellas was the equivalent of five Bubonic Plagues times the compound interest on a 400% fall in heterosexuality. Everywhere men were making observations and finding nothing.
The Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard was nearly complete. Hundreds of skilled engineers had spent months pondering problems of slope. By how many degrees per mile over terrain of continuously changing elevation should the slope of the aqueduct change to ensure water would flow in the proper direction, given the as-yet-unconceived theories of gravity and friction? The Men had determined the correct degree plus or minus one-sixteenth of an inch.
The measurement had been accurate only because the good-natured Water in the aqueduct had been dancing along. Man, it was a tough dance but once Water knew what was expected of her, she followed the drill and flowed along as mathematically as you please. Of course, after the Convention, she gave a damn and took it easy. She had a crush on a Dryad in the north woods, and would tumble there every morning to gape as Helios, in his fiery chariot, rose behind her.
When the engineers began work along some part of the aqueduct, Water would splash playfully out of the mortar which, Men had determined by painstaking Observation, was water-tight. Sometimes Water would just slosh around in the great stone roller-coaster. By week’s end fourteen of the fifteen engineers had gone mad with Water’s theory-violations, and fallen on their swords or, rather, on their wooden measuring-sticks, a very much more prolonged process. The fifteenth guy just walked off into the sunset and married the Dryad, much to Water’s chagrin.
Everywhere, Things went back to behaving just as they pleased, just as they’d done before people came along. Plants gave the finger to farmers: one-leaf seedlings shot fully-grown watermelons up two yards right into someone’s gaping mouth, or plopped their heads under their wings and snored the summer away through a Demosthenic tirade of fertilising, irrigating, and pruning.
A water-jug a woman had placed on the brink of a well as she chatted up a sweetheart got so sick of mushy talk, he did a reverse tuck dive with 1½ somersaults into the well, instantly followed by the two lovers raving mad.
Right on trend with Theory Disillusionment, Diogenes — who was 3.4 years behind on his rent anyway — finally moved out of his flat and into a much cosier hangout, declaring that society was just a theory. And it was a good point, for everything was misbehaving, except the people who were going mad, as they theoretically should, in the mad state of things.
“Things are not supposed to move on their own; plants are supposed to thrive in these conditions; water’s not supposed to act like that; I thought owl’s-eyes and cat’s-engram prevented death from snake-bite; where did the planets go?” It was too bad men couldn’t just sit back and enjoy the free fireworks as the planets chucked out their bus-routes and gate-crashed the premiere of Supernova, Episode PG-913.
As it was, foolish men and women, too, went mad and there was a two-day queue at the Tarpeian Rock of people waiting to throw themselves off in despair out of this mad world. The Rock was reserved for lemmings and traitors. But, perverse as man is, he who’s been betrayed by the hope for a sensible world considers himself a traitor.
Zeus was aghast. He might as well have set the earth on fire. Certainly more hygienic. The earth stank to high heaven with the improper suicides of fools who’d expected the world to dance to some divine tune which eventually they’d figure out and set down in the endless sheet-music of the universe symphony.
Summarily Zeus convened the Reconvention of All Things.
“I know it’s difficult and all, but you’ve got to go back to dancing for men,” he declared. “Everyone’s killing himself. We’ve got to do something.”
But the Things had had a gala time all month, doing just what they pleased. Just as hitherto instructed. Now there was a murmur of disagreement.
“Why not let men die?” said north wind Boreas, who’d launched Operation Increase My Genetic Legacy most systematically this last month with mares, rivers, and anything else at all amenable to said operation with the world’s least-cuddly roommate. “Let’s confess it: humanity was sort of an aborted project from the get-go. You never know what’ll make men happy. And they’ll just get harder to predict, the farther away they get from us gods. They had a Golden Age, then a Silver Age, and now their blood’s getting as heavy-metal as Burzum. You were going to kill them off anyway, after the Age of Iron, weren’t you? I vote we abort the remainder of Project Man, and bring forward the date of our scheduled mass euthanasia.”
“In the first place, it’s for me to say when we abort the project. In the second place” — Zeus struck the earth with his Aegis in earthquake emphasis — “no one except men can sacrifice to me, and no one except women turn me on. Really, how often can I bed my relatives? Sister Hera’s nether-sore, nothing doing, for all she nags me about my diversified portfolio. So we’ve got to keep men alive, and we’ve got to keep them believing in me.
“Unfortunately, you speak truth in this: that men get more incorrigible every day. So much so, that last time I went to her for oracles and stuff, aunty Metis told me there shall come a day when men shall cease to believe in Me, can you believe?! The point is, we must postpone that day into the unforeseeable future.”
They all pondered the problem.
Fatty had been formulating another theory of his own. The question intrigued him: Why are these new-fangled monotheisms on the rise? They’re taking the wind out of the good old pantheons. Polytheisms tell neon-spray-paint stories about how the world started and why cows fart, and don’t tell Men what to do.
Sure, there are a few simple rules: don’t murder family like Orestes; don’t murder family and feed it to family like Thyestes; don’t murder family and feed it to the gods like Tantalus; don’t sleep with family like Myrrha; don’t insult the gods, according to Leto; and don’t sleep with Zeus’s women, says everyone in Tartarus, which is reserved in perpetuity for Zeus-cuckolds.
But that’s all the rules Zeus gives: for the rest do as you please: lie, steal, cheat, kill. Meanwhile these upstart religions are telling Men what not to do every minute of the day. So how was it they were gaining ground? Fatty had a theory.
“Sire, I crave your indulgence. I have a plan. The only one who needs do anything is You, Majesty. Why not establish a Code of Ethics? Hear me out. You scribble something down, hand it down from Mt. Ida as commandments, appoint deputies to monitor which men are following the code, and apportion men’s fates according to their doings.
“Our fast friends, the winds here, they could do your rounds for you, on their way to and fro equine encounters. Then men will know there’s only one cause-and-effect relationship, and that it’s governed by You. All you need to do is make up some code — anything; the more arbitrary, the better men will like it — and enforce obedience to it.
“Sooner or later, men will see there are no other laws. No laws of matter, only your laws. Whatever other cause-and-effect relationships emerge would do so only accidentally and fail to be reliably replicable. And men wouldn’t have the energy to go dorking about: they’d be too busy obeying your Code to check what else they couldn’t do.”
Zeus considered. “For this I’d need to spend at least one week, human time, making laws. Then, hold a Convention of All Men, publicising it. Then spend the rest of my eternity policing men’s behaviour-police.”
“The week of making laws, yeah,” said Fatty. “But surely your lordship could appoint as the police force the whole pantheon, and you yourself would not be called upon to spend more than, say — an hour a day — in review.”
“An hour a day, Fatty! D’you know how many women that adds up to, in a year?” Impressively Zeus paused to do the maths. “A lot. No. Veto. Plan B?”
But the Things thought the idea deserved consideration, as it would leave them free to do whatever. So Zeus gave another reason why Plan A was no-go. “Men’s Fates are determined at birth by the Three Sisters. The daughters of Aunty Metis, aforementioned, the goddess of Justice.
“Well, strictly speaking, the daughters are mine. Metis has to get high, get into her Pytho-trance and all, and a god gets bored waiting for the oracle to get stoned, so one day we did it. Fine girls I sired on her! Then, sneakily, as I lay bathing in love’s afterglow, Metis got me to promise her daughters, just conceived, a king’s estate. They’re the Fates, you know.
“There’s Clotho, who weaves the thread of a man’s life; Lachesis, who measures; and Atropos, who cuts, So all that’s out of my hand, who lives how long; it’s their little fireside game, when a kid’s born. Since man’s time immemorial, it’s been their privilege to get together for a tea-party at every human birthing-bed and play lottery with Destiny’s Yarn.
“Well – sometimes they do the tea-leaves thing. If there’s 214 tea-leaves in Atropos’ cup that means the guy will live 56 years, minus 43 if it’s a full moon, except plus 18 if there’s a full moon and Atropos has her period. And if the leaves have been soaked long and the liqueur is dark, it means death during hunting, unless it’s a king, in which case he dies from drinking bathtub alcohol, unless I take a fancy to him and give his fine ass a workout before sending him to physical therapy in Elysium, to sport about naked with all my other lovers, late lamented.
“In short, men’s fates are in their hands, and they’ve got it all figured out; they got a system. I won’t even try to take it from them, okay? They’re very touchy; I mean it’s about the only entertainment the Titans have left, what with Atlas carrying the world, and Helios being the sun, and grandpa Tartarus being Hades’s hellhole, we gotta let the others have a little fun.”
So the Things heaved a collective sigh, realising it was back to their acting all orderly to prevent men from killing themselves unhygienically because the world was misbehaving.
“So, all we have to do is think of what to do, and do it, when men are observing us,” said Fatty.
“That’s easy for you to say,” snapped Atom. “We don’t know what to do.”
“Imagine,” said Fatty, breaking into a song which was 80 billion neurons flaming into an almost meaningful pattern of irradiating excitation and concentrating inhibition, illustrating Pavlov’s theory of the biological basis of learning. As a song, it wasn’t winning any Grammys, though. “Imagine,” said Fatty, “Yourself. Have an idea of yourself, define your every characteristic: and, per the theory of Existentialist Materialism, self-determinism will ensue. Once you have an idea of what men expect you to do, you will do it. Yes! I think I shall be… a thinking thing. Yclept Brain! Lo, I am born again.”
“But if you make it all so orderly, then the very first time a man makes an observation, he’ll know everything, and then he’ll think he doesn’t need Zeus, since Zeus refuses to declare a moral Code. So then, Zeus would be just all-knowing and not all-forgiving, for if there’s no Code there’s nothing to forgive,” objected Mute Pig, who had now learned to subtitle his own Morse code. Which he did, ingeniously, by writing on Wayside Bench’s face with the ripe bathwater from Tub of Water. “And then it’ll be, maybe, one year before men know everything, and then men will cease to have any use for the gods. On the contrary, if you were to introduce a Code—”
“So, introduce a little Chaos,” interrupted Boreas, quoting his great-great-grandson the Joker, leaping joyfully around messing up everyone’s mullet and blowing a baleful of garbage up into the primeval forest of Zeus’ beard. “Play a tune, but keep varying it, just like… whatever.”
“Precisely,” said Brain, née Fatty. “The significant implicit assumption behind the endeavour—”
“In Greek, if you please,” scolded Zeus, brushing a tectonic plate out of his beard.
“I mean, men only expect to find laws because they think when they make an observation, it’s representative. Right? Oh, sure, as science progresses, generalisations will get wussier: every conclusion will come with footnotes, and every footnote will have sole-of-footnotes; and levels of analysis and jumps in logic will become progressively weenier as men bethink themselves that links made by commonsense must be systematically examined, and stuff. But the basic assumption is that we’re all behaving more or less the same way when men aren’t looking as when they are. Right?”
The Things had a good laugh. Fatty continued, “So men won’t just accept errors, they’ll expect ’em. They’ll think, as the grave-robber did with Corpse of a Gymnast, that their sample is unrepresentative, or their tools blunt, so—”
“So they’ll keep doing it!” said Atom, getting ahead of himself — and the history of science — with a nano-sparkling dance of the charm-quark. “When there’s an inconsistency, they’ll start Round Next of ‘Who Has the Sexiest Brain, Babe, Check Out My Theory!’”
“That’s sexist,” objected Water. “Women make theories, too.”
“Not as per the theory of intermale competition and sexual selection. It’s men who need to impress women, that’s why Fatty’s so much bigger in men than in women… Men or women, what’s it matter? They’ll keep observing us, keep giving us all the benefit of the doubt if we forget what laws we’re supposed to be following — they’ll distrust their eyes, recalibrate their rules — so long as we—”
“Do Whatever, but only in moderation,” whispered Brown Leaf, whose lawful lifespan had been extended over the Month of Whatever, and who was hanging around hoping someone wouldn’t suddenly notice it was winter already; hey, what’s that last leaf still doing up there?
“So… er, how long can you keep this up? How many millennia, approximately, before men Find Out enough about stuff to stop slitting bull’s throats for me, and women consider it no longer an honour to be coerced by me into love-making?” said Zeus, the lifetime patent-owner of Original Godlike One-Track Mind.
“If you plot against time,” said Fatty, “the substantive validity of theories a.k.a. empirical support for men’s theories about the Whatever Dance, it’ll be a hyperbolic relationship: with men’s understanding approaching, but never levelling, with the asymptote.”
“Let’s get, like, new dance steps every once a Whenever!” said Boreas, dancing the bacchanal with Mute Pig in mid-typhoon so fast, that Mute Pig realised he had, oh a hell of a lot more nerves than the experimentally ablated laryngeal efferent motor nerve. “So men have to keep smoking up new theories.”
“The question is one of balance,” lectured Corpse of a Gymnast. “On one side of the balance beam is the pit of obviousness: our doing Whatever so accurately that men think enough representative observations have been made and their theory has achieved validity as per John Stuart Mill’s Theory of Theories. And they believe they now understand all causality, and therefore the gods are no longer de jour.
“On the other side is the risk of being so Whatever that men see an army of Visigoths where there’s supposed to be a femur, and they lurch out of the spider’s web of sanity. And they die, and dead men can’t worship Zeus, so that’s out.”
* * *